November, 2001

1. Thoreau

Thoreau is best known as the author of Walden. The first three chapters of Walden are among the finest of all philosophical writings. Thoreau’s style is earthy, lively and eloquent. His cheerfulness reminds one of Emerson. Thoreau argues in favor of a simple, frugal life, and criticizes the complex, hurried life that most men lead. “Men’s minds run so much on work and money,” writes Thoreau, “an Irishman who saw me in the fields making a [note] in my notebook took it for granted that I was casting up my wages and actually inquired what they came to, as if he had never dreamed of any other use for writing.”1

Thoreau’s love of nature has made him very popular with readers in our time — more popular than Emerson. “In Wildness is the preservation of the world,” said Thoreau; “I believe in the forest, and in the meadow, and in the night in which the corn grows.... Hope and the future for me are not in lawns and cultivated fields, not in towns and cities, but in the impervious and quaking swamps.”2 Thoreau could make friends with all sorts of wild animals, including birds, frogs and woodchucks; he would call his friends by whistling, and they would eat out of his hand.

He spent his days wandering in the woods and fields around Concord, Massachusetts, collecting arrowheads, plants, birds’ nests, etc. and bringing them back to his private museum. Occasionally he ventured farther afield, taking trips to Cape Cod, Mt. Katahdin, the White Mountains, etc. He wrote several travel books, the best of which may be his book on Cape Cod. Like Emerson, Thoreau often gave lectures and readings at the Concord Lyceum. When Thoreau lectured on Cape Cod, Emerson said that the audience “laughed until they cried.”3

Emerson allowed Thoreau to build a cabin on his land at Walden Pond; thus began Thoreau’s famous experiment in simple living. In a lecture at the Concord Lyceum, Thoreau described his lifestyle at the Pond; Emerson said that the audience was “charmed with the witty wisdom which ran through it all,”4 and Thoreau was asked to repeat it the following week for the benefit of those who had missed it. This enthusiastic response prompted Thoreau to expand the lecture into a book — his most famous book, Walden.

Thoreau’s best writings are Walden, his Journals, and his two essays, “Walking” and “Life Without Principle.” Many abridgements of Thoreau’s Journals have been published; I recommend The Heart of Thoreau’s Journals. Walter Harding has written an extraordinary biography of Thoreau, The Days of Henry Thoreau; fans of Thoreau will find this book difficult to put down.

While he was living at Walden Pond, Thoreau was arrested and jailed for non-payment of taxes. Thoreau was fervently anti-slavery, and he didn’t want his tax money to support government policies that he viewed as pro-slavery. When a relative paid his tax, and Thoreau’s jailer told him that he was free to leave, Thoreau was “mad as the devil,”5 and refused to leave, since he wanted to call attention to his political views; finally his jailer had to insist that he leave. Out of this incident grew Thoreau’s famous essay, “Civil Disobedience,” in which he argued that the individual should obey conscience rather than law, and that passive resistance by numerous people could change government policy. “Civil Disobedience” influenced Gandhi’s struggle against British rule in India, and also influenced Martin Luther King’s struggle on behalf of American blacks.

In January, 1862, Thoreau was 45, and he was dying of tuberculosis. Two of his friends, who skated down the river to visit him, reported later that “he seemed glad to see us; said we had not come much too soon.... There was a beautiful snowstorm going on the while which I fancy inspired him, and his talk was up to the best I ever heard from him — the same depth of earnestness and the same infinite depth of fun going on at the same time.” When he was asked if he put his faith in Christ, he said that a snowstorm meant more to him than Christ. One of his friends said to him, “you seem near the brink of the dark river. What do you think of the next world?” Thoreau responded, “one world at a time.” In March, 1862, a neighbor visited Thoreau and later told Emerson that he “never spent an hour with more satisfaction. Never saw a man dying with so much pleasure and peace.” In his final days, Thoreau worked on his book about Maine, and his last sentence contained only two distinct words: “Moose” and “Indian.”6

2. Carlyle

Carlyle was born in 1795, 22 years before Thoreau. Though he was one of the leading intellectuals of his time, Carlyle is largely forgotten today. He wrote essays and several long historical works. Carlyle is known for his hero-worship; he emphasized the importance of great individuals in history. The best government, in Carlyle’s view, is one in which a great individual has unlimited power.

Carlyle is also known for introducing German writers and German thought to the English-speaking world. He learned German at a time when few English intellectuals knew German. He wrote a biography of Schiller, the German poet and dramatist, and a multi-volume work on Frederick the Great, the German military hero.

Carlyle’s conversational talent was legendary; Darwin said Carlyle was “the best worth listening to of any man I know.”7 Emerson called Carlyle, “an immense talker, and, altogether, as extraordinary in that as in his writing; I think even more so. You will never discover his real vigor and range, or how much more he might do than he has ever done, without seeing him.”8 Carlyle was a keen observer of people, and he left memorable sketches of many of his contemporaries, including Coleridge, Wordsworth, and Queen Victoria. Emerson said that Carlyle’s forte was not abstract thinking, but rather grasping the essence of a man or an epoch.9 Carlyle used this ability to create a highly poetic type of historical writing. Mill said that Carlyle’s French Revolution “is not so much a history as an epic poem [and yet] the truest of histories.”10

Carlyle was a right-wing thinker who rejected the liberalism and Utilitarianism that was popular in his time. Carlyle was sharply critical of the democratic, business-oriented society that was developing around him. He was especially critical of the U.S., the nation in which democracy and capitalism were most fully developed: “My friend, brag not yet of our American cousins! Their quantity of cotton, dollars, industry and resources, I believe to be almost unspeakable; but I can by no means worship the like of these. What great human soul, what great thought, what great noble thing that one could worship, or loyally admire, has yet been produced there?”11 Among Carlyle’s works, my favorite is Sartor Resartus, an autobiographical novel. Though Carlyle lacks wit and grace, he’s one of the most profound thinkers that the English-speaking nations have produced.

3. Aphorism

Kant said that man is an end in himself, while animals are merely means. As one grows older, one finds to one’s sorrow that people often treat you like one of Kant’s animals, that is, they treat you as merely a means — a means to their own ends. They use you and then, when you’re no longer useful to them, they discard you. Every teenager is told by his elders, “Beware! People will mistreat you! People will use you for their own purposes!” But the teenager doesn’t believe it, he must learn it from his own bitter experience. Homo homini lupus: man is a wolf to man. This is a fundamental law of human nature, applicable to the relations between nations as well as to the relations between individuals.

4. Keats

Keats is one of the most remarkable talents in English literature. His life was short (he died at 26), and his complete works would scarcely fill a thin volume. Though he is best known for his poetry, his letters are also literary works of considerable value.

His biography exemplifies several traits that are found in other literary biographies. Born into the working class, Keats had little formal education. At 14, he fell in love with literature, and began to read voraciously. His enthusiasm for the classics, especially poetry, was such that, at age 21, he stayed up all night with his former teacher and read Homer in Chapman’s translation. In the morning, still without sleep, he composed the immortal sonnet, “On First Looking Into Chapman’s Homer”:

Much have I travell’d in the realms of gold,
And many goodly states and kingdoms seen;
Round many western islands have I been
Which bards in fealty to Apollo hold.
Oft of one wide expanse had I been told
That deep-brow’d Homer ruled as his demesne;
Yet did I never breathe its pure serene
Till I heard Chapman speak out loud and bold....

Keats knew that poetry was his calling; he was determined to be a poet. He also knew that he would die young; “even while his health was good, Keats felt a foreboding of early death, and applied himself to his art with a desperate urgency.” He asked

    for ten years, that I may overwhelm
Myself in poesy; so I may do the deed
That my own soul has to itself decreed.

Keats said that his models (in life and in art) were the “mighty dead.” (Though I have searched high and low for this passage, and travell’d round many western islands, I haven’t been able to trace it. I believe it’s from one of Keats’ letters, and would be much obliged to anyone who can find it. Searching the Web for “Keats AND ‘mighty dead’” turns up one of Keats’ poems, but the passage that I’m looking for is different.)

Keats had confidence in his own work: “I think I shall be among the English poets after my death.”

All these traits are characteristic of a great writer: the enthusiasm for literature, the determination to be a writer, emulation of the “mighty dead,” and confidence in one’s own work.

© L. James Hammond 2002
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1. The Selected Journals of Henry David Thoreau, edited by Carl Bode, 4/3/59 back
2. “Walking” (an essay) back
3. Walter Harding, The Days of Henry Thoreau, ch. 14, žiii, p. 273 back
4. ibid, ch. 10, p. 188 back
5. ibid, ch. 11, p. 204 back
6. On Thoreau’s final months, see The Days of Henry Thoreau, ch. 20 back
7. see the essay on Carlyle in the Norton Anthology of English Literature, 4th edition back
8. The Heart Of Emerson’s Journals, edited by Bliss Perry, October, 1847 back
9. See Frank T. Thompson, “Emerson and Carlyle,” Studies in Philology, XXIV, 1927 back
10. The Norton Anthology of English Literature, 4th edition, volume 2, footnote in the excerpt from Carlyle’s French Revolution. back
11. Latter-Day Pamphlets, 1, “The Present Time” back